Golf’s New Breed Tries to Speed Things Up
MEDINAH, Ill. — A pace-of-play problem that has simmered for decades on the PGA Tour reached full boil in 2 minutes 20 seconds, the time it took Bryson DeChambeau to execute an eight-foot putt last week.
A video of that stroke, and another of DeChambeau laboring even longer over a 70-yard approach, went viral. And then some of his playing peers, led by the world No. 1, Brooks Koepka, sounded off.
Koepka corralled DeChambeau on the practice green for a quick conversation about slow play. A day later, DeChambeau vowed to speed up. “I’m committed to being part of the solution, not the problem,” he wrote Monday on his Instagram account.
Along with Koepka, stars like Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas have taken on the issue of slow play, ignoring PGA Tour etiquette that has traditionally silenced complaints and accommodated the offenders.
For too long, the tour has protected golfers who possess neither the discipline nor the decorum — two so-called tenets of the game — to hit shots in a timely manner. The tour’s pace-of-play rule focuses on golfers whose groups have fallen out of position, not on individuals who dawdle.
DeChambeau, 25, was in diapers the last time the tour’s pace-of-play policy was enforced at an individual stroke play event. Five players in the 69-man field at this week’s BMW Championship hadn’t been born when Glen Day was penalized a stroke for slow play in the third round of the 1995 Honda Classic.
But in the last week, the young stars of the men’s tour showed that if the executives who run the sport will not fix the problem, they will — if only by shaming the guilty parties.
When Koepka was paired with a slow player, J.B. Holmes, at the British Open last month, he pointed at an imaginary watch — a gesture directed toward the rules officials. He was silently imploring them to do their job and hold Holmes accountable.
“I mean, I take 15 seconds and go, and I’ve done all right,” Koepka, a four-time major winner, said this week ahead of the BMW Championship at Medinah Country Club.
DeChambeau, a physics wonk, has cultivated an image as the game’s mad scientist. Long perceived by his peers as notoriously deliberate, he gained wider notice Friday when his snail’s pace caused a firestorm on social media, from fans as well as other members of the tour.
The players’ comments represented a stark departure from the days of Deane Beman, the tour commissioner from 1974 to 1994. In that era tour members trashed their pokey brethren privately, but toed the party line publicly by declaring that everything was fine.
This new breed, led by Koepka, 29, and McIlroy, 30, won’t be silent. McIlroy challenged the tour to get tough on slow players by issuing a warning followed by a stroke penalty.
“That will stamp it out right away,” he said, adding, “We are not children that need to be told five or six times what to do.”
McIlroy, a former world No. 1 from Northern Ireland, spoke up before last weekend’s tournament at Liberty National Golf Club in Jersey City. After the third round, Koepka was asked how he would have reacted if he had been in DeChambeau’s threesome.
Koepka said he would have told him to hurry up, using an expletive for emphasis.
Koepka’s first love was baseball, a sport in which players occasionally jaw at each other, and he saw no reason to change his approach once he switched games.
“I bring more of a true athlete’s mentality to golf than the typical golfer,” he said. “That’s why I can rub a lot of people the wrong way. But I don’t care.”
A little confrontation never hurts, Koepka said. “Sometimes,” he added, “it helps you figure out what the root of the problem is and start working on it.”
Other sports, including baseball, cricket and tennis, have introduced measures to speed up play. Golf — with its five-and-a-half-hour rounds for pros, its dress codes for children and its private clubs that exclude women — can seem to be almost willfully lagging behind the times.
“Until television and sponsors aren’t interested, then slow play is just part of the game,” said Adam Scott, the former world No. 1 from Australia.
In a funny twist, the tour playoffs, now underway, are sponsored by FedEx, a business predicated on speediness.
Tyler Dennis, the PGA Tour’s chief of operations, said the tour is reviewing its slow-play policy to determine whether the rules should include players who take an inordinate amount of time to hit a shot.
“It’s a very important issue and we hear the players’ position,” he said.
Phil Mickelson said he remained skeptical that anything would change. “It’s been a topic of discussion since I came out on tour,” said Mickelson, who turned pro in 1992. “I think we just need to quit complaining and deal with the fact that it is what it is.”
Slow play has been a pox on the pro game since long before Mickelson, 49, arrived on the scene. During the 1949 United States Open at Medinah, the slack pace exasperated officials, according to “Miracle at Merion,” a 2010 book by David Barrett. For the 1950 tournament, held at Merion, a note was posted in the locker room imploring players to speed up, Barrett wrote.
The first threesome in 1947 finished in 3 hours 27 minutes and the last in 4:16, the book said, prompting Joe Dey, the United States Golf Association executive director, to grouse, “This is murder on spectators as well as players who wish to play at a reasonable speed.”
Players are not always entirely at fault. Slick greens combined with swirling winds can be a recipe for trouble, said Holmes, who explained, “The harder you make these golf courses, you have to put more thought into it.”
Playing alongside Tiger Woods, who attracts large, boisterous crowds that are hard to corral and harder to hush, can be especially tough. “You’re going to go slower because there’s extra stuff going on,” said Jordan Spieth, a three-time major winner and former world No. 1, who is often a target of criticism.
But players have control over their pre-shot routines, some of which have crossed into compulsions.
“It seems now that there are so many sports psychologists and everybody telling everybody that they can’t hit it until they are ready, that you have to fully process everything,” Koepka said.
Then there are the detailed yardage and greens books, which have turned even the sternest tests of golf into what Scott, the 2013 Masters champion, described as an open-book exam.
“There’s so much information we’re given, it’s no wonder it takes so long,” Scott said, adding, “I don’t see why people aren’t suspended.”
In an article in the June issue of Golf Digest, Slugger White, the tour’s vice president of rules and competitions, explained why he is loath to assess penalty strokes for slow play. Imagine someone taking two seconds more than his allotted time and being slapped with a one-stroke penalty, he said.
“Say the penalty cost him $5,000,” White said. “Suddenly he’s so far down the FedEx Cup point list he doesn’t have a place to play the following year, which in turn might mean his kid can’t go to college or he can’t put a down payment on that decent house.”
White added: “I’m all for looking at fine structures, maybe increasing them. But determining his fate with a stopwatch to me is a little harsh.”
It would not be the only harsh golf rule. Roberto DeVicenzo missed out on a championship playoff at the 1968 Masters for signing a scorecard for a 66, one shot higher than his actual score, which would have sent him into a playoff with Bob Goalby.
“Look, we’re trying this off-the-wall FedEx Cup,” Thomas, a former world No. 1, said, referring to the revamped scoring system for the Tour Championship, where the 30-man field will feature a staggered, handicapped start. “Why can’t we try something for slow play? Even if it’s putting names up in the locker room of the 10 slowest players. I’m sure they’re going to want to play faster to not have their names on the wall.”
Thomas may be on to something. Spieth, who was fined for slow play during his five-win season in 2015, said he had made a conscious effort to speed up.
Why? “It’s no fun,” Spieth said, “being that guy that other people get the pairing with you and go, ‘Oh, no.’”